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More science on these food issues? Yes please!

On this year's annual Earth Day, April 22, about 1,000 people in Omaha joined protestors in 600 other cities to March for Science, according to the World-Herald. The movement was part of an international show of support for "evidence-based decision-making," according to the march founders. Among those speaking in Omaha against global warming, lead poisoning and other science-related topics, says the World Herald, was Alan Kolok, director of the Nebraska Watershed Network, an organization of college students that supports small-scale farming, sustainable development and tighter restrictions on pesticides. Like several of the sponsoring organizations of the March for Science, Kolok said he is encouraged by the public's response to "resistance to science" in making policy. Some of those sponsoring groups include:

  • The Union of Concerned Scientists, a continual critic of biotechnology in food production.
  • Center for Science in the Public Interest, the group with a long, dubious track record of lobbying for cost-boosting food-service regulations, including banning trans fats, regulating salt as hazardous, mandating nutrition information on menus, and restricting youth access to vending machines.
  • The Center for Food Safety, a major partner in the “Keep Nature Natural” campaign, which receives funding from the organic food industry to "combat the negative effects of technological progress." 
  • Environmental Defense Fund, the environmental-activist group that dresses itself up as a “partner” in helping businesses improve their sustainability, such as recent restrictions on diesel-driven generators many supermarkets rely upon.
  • Friends of the Earth, a self-professed "outspoken" environmental justice organization that has helped prevent marketing of genetically modified salmon in the United States.
  • Riverkeeper Alliance, an environmental group that aims to protect rivers from livestock farms not by encouraging use of scientific technology, but by impeding farms' growth or forbidding them outright through local regulations.

Now that these political groups have discovered the need to support more and better science in policy making, Farmer Goes to Market asks, Please, could we in the food chain get a little more support for science on these issues, too?

GMOs

A recent survey showed 88 percent of respondents said foods containing genetically modified organisms should be labeled so consumers can assess their risk, but the same poll found only about 40 percent admitted to anything more than a fair or poor understanding of what GMOs really are. Is that fear grounded in scientific reality?  A 440-page report by the National Academy of Sciences, the non-profit non-governmental organization that serves as the science advisor to the U.S. government, summarized years of research on genetically engineered crops. And its conclusion: No meaningful evidence has been discovered in any of that research showing that genetically engineered crops now in use are any different from conventionally bred crops. No evidence has come forward that GMO crops have had a direct negative impact on the environment.

Because of that lack of evidence, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has officially said there is no need to label GMO products. The safety of biotech products has been likewise officially confirmed by numerous scientific groups, some of which sponsored the March for Science, including:

  • The American Medical Association
  • The Society of Toxicology
  • The International Life Sciences Institute
  • The National Academy of Sciences in the United States
  • The Royal Society of the United Kingdom
  • The World Health Organization
  • The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  • The European Commission

In 2016, more than 100 Nobel-recognized scientists published a letter reprinted by the Washington Post demanding the environmental organization Greenpeace call a halt to its campaign targeting GMOs. The scientists called it a "crime against humanity" to stand in the way of GMOs needed in agriculture to prevent global starvation. “The scientific consensus," the laureates' letter in the Post said, "is that gene editing in a laboratory is not more hazardous than modifications through traditional breeding and that engineered plants potentially have environmental or health benefits, such as cutting down on the need for pesticides."

Antibiotics

Despite food marketers' wholesale rush to adopt and hype "raised without antibiotics" programs, no scientific evidence supports the claim that antibiotic use by farmers has caused human diseases that can't be treated. Even the scientific critics of farm antibiotic use speak only in terms of likelihood and probability that farm antibiotics could be the contributor to human drugs becoming less effective in fighting illness in people. Arguments that focus the blame for failing human antibiotics on farmers ignore the reality that, according to experts, from at least 95 percent to as much as 99 percent of the drug-resistance problem can easily be laid at the door of human drug over-prescribing and abuse.

Hormones.

The resistance to science when it comes to labeling "hormone-free" foods is so thorough that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration actually requires marketers to remind shoppers of that science on each label (“From cows not treated with rbST. No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated cows”) and ("Raised without the use of hormones. All chicken and pork are raised without the use of hormones.")

Still, advocates for small-scale and sustainable agriculture continue to misuse science in trying to connect hormone use in beef with reports that boys and girls appear to be maturing from months to years earlier than commonly used norms. That hormone non-science pervades the Internet, typically culminating in advice to buy and eat organic produce and free-range, organic meats to reduce exposure to added hormones.

Although it's understandable to assume the implantable growth hormones farmers use in beef cattle might cause changes in people who eat the meat, any real danger is a non-starter, according to the science. The fact is, the natural proteins in both plant-based and animal-based foods form hundreds, if not thousands, of naturally occurring steroid hormones in almost all foods. And all are broken down by the process of digestion in the stomach, which means by the time they enter the bloodstream, they will have been so reduced to their component parts that they will have lost any ability to biologically affect the human reproductive system.

In fact, most scientists who understand the biological mechanics of early puberty agree that youth today, particulary young women, may be maturing earlier than their ancestors because, ironically, their diets are better than they've ever been. Girls in particular must achieve a certain body mass for puberty to begin. Today's relatively better nutrition—and, yes, today's increase in obesity—means modern girls reach that critical mass at an earlier age than their mothers and grandmothers, which is the likely reason they are entering puberty sooner.

Organic.

Every year, the Pesticide Action Network returns to reprise its frightening but highly scientific-looking story of poisonous pesticides lurking in your produce section. The California non-governmental organization urges citizens to repeat the information provided by its website and other materials as often as possible, and it all sounds quite scientific: "Our website WhatsOnMyFood.org links pesticide food residue data from the USDA with toxicological profiles for each chemical, making this information easily searchable. The end result is a litany of common pesticides, most showing up as residues on any of 93 different foods listed, ranging in incidence from none at all to as high as nearly 90 percent. But in all the scientific smokescreen, Pesticide Action Network fails to enter the most important scientific discussion of all: Does it matter?

As Farmer Goes to Market has cautioned in the past: The Network’s data on incidence of pesticides has to be correctly decoded. Only then does it form a more accurate picture of the real issue—exposure. We found that in all cases, the amount of produce necessary for adults and children to eat daily, according to the minimum safety standards established by scientific testing for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are far beyond the physical capability, let alone the desire to do so.

That kind of fast-and-loose interpretation of pesticide science is precisely what led to a blistering 2014 indictment of the "pesticide-free" tendancies of organic marketing, accusing the organic-food industry of building its 3,400-percent increase in sales over the last quarter century only by using deceptive marketing practices. The 16-page research review studied more than 150 existing scientific sources to evaluate the organic industry's health claims--both those actively expressed and those only assumed by consumers but permitted to stand by marketers. The results?

"Our review," the authors write, "suggests a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and advocacy related practices with the implied use and approval of the U.S. government endorsed USDA Organic Seal."

Cage-free.

Half a year ago, McDonalds surprised the food world by pronouncing it would require all the eggs it buys to come from farms that refuse to put hens in cages, opening a floodgate of other companies who have now made similar claims. Six months later, the burger maker's poster child for its self-proclaimed "transparent, science-based" decision, world-famed animal-welfare expert Temple Grandin, was pleading her case to Toronto's Globe and Mail that, well, McDonald's hadn't really consulted her about whether any good scientific reason existed to do so.

Had McDonald's done so, it might not have gotten the answer its marketing department wanted. California, Michigan State, Iowa State and USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists, for example, spent three years analyzing hen housing, measuring its environmental impacts, hen health and welfare, and egg quality and safety. Their findings suggest cage-free may actually be worse for the hens. Two-times the number of hens died in cage-free systems than did in traditional caged or in cages furnished with perches and dust-bathes. While some were killed by other chickens in the barn, most cage-free chickens died from disease.

Sustainability

Physician Henry I. Miller, a fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford and a founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, calls today's infatuation with sustainable food little more than "Affluent Narcissism."

As Farmer Goes to Market has cautioned before: Blindly following the sustainable-food line will take grocers onto thin ice when it comes to health claims. The science doesn't support those claims. The even worse news: The science has also called into question sustainability's claims about environmental protection, as well.

For example, University of Oregon's Julius McGee tested the relationship between the recent growth in organic agriculture and greenhouse gas emission that could be traced specifically to agriculture. His study, in the June 2015 issue of the journalAgriculture and Human Values, is one of the first large-scale empirical analyses of certified organic farming and agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. In it, McGee offers the surprising and contrarian conclusion that not only has organic farming not helped reduce greenhouse gases and global warming, it has in fact increased climate change.

Numerous studies like McGee's demonstrate any promise for food sustainability lies not in reducing the use of scientific farming technology, but in increasing its use to grow more crops on less water, land and fertilizer.

Why do farmers rely on Mexican workers, often illlegal?

As more than 500 companies lined up before this week's deadline to get their bids in to build a prototype of the Trump administration's promised border-security "wall" between Mexico and the United States, agricultural interests were continuing to caution that America's farmers could be hurt by a planned crackdown on illegal immigration. Bloomberg Politics, for example, reported last year several sources within the nation's dairy industry were expressing concern even before Trump's nomination that building an immigration-tight wall between Mexico and the southern United States would cause the nation's milk-producing farms in particular to suffer.

The continuing debate over immigration and its peculiar relationship with U.S. agriculture here may raise the question with shoppers: Why do farmers hire so many immigrant, and sometimes illegal, workers?

Cost. If you believe the advocates for laborors' rights, it's all about cost control. Farmers hire immigrants, often undocumented, because they can pay them less than native workers, better control efforts to unionize and bargain, and keep them in low-level positions because they have fewer options. Although no doubt some farm employers are guilty of that exploitation, such a black-and-white picture of the economics of immigrant labor is too simple.

In one sense, the cost-control argument is correct. Migrant farm workers do get paid relatively little. But it's not because they're migrants. If's because they're farm laborers. The average wages for hired farm workers across the board in the United States are the second lowest category for all U.S. workers, trailed only by private household help. Underpaying immigrant labor is less about exploiting them than it is about the monetarily thankless task farming in general is: In U.S. farming and ranching, farm managers as a whole earned a median annual income of only about $64,000 in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That figure compares to nearly $86,000 for other managerial occupations in this country. The average U.S. corn farmer, for example, made only $25.63 per acre for his time in 2015, USDA survey data show. The average U.S. farm size is 434 acres. You do the math.

With that said, according to USDA, average hourly farm worker pay for 2016 was $12.98, which is above both the national $7.25 minimum wage and the BLS' $10.43 average hourly wage for grocery cashiers. Yet it's widely accepted in the farming community those wages often aren't sufficient to motivate legal citizens to turn down unemployment payments, SNAP cards, Section 8 Housing and other benefits that might dry up should they accept employment in the often difficult business of farmwork. That leaves farmers with little choice than to hire immigrants, they say.

Shortage. With a national unemployment rate that peaked at 9.5 percent during the 2009 recession and still lingers at about 5 percent, along with a real unemployment rate that's still more than 9 percent, many have a hard time believing farmers when they claim they can't find enough workers. But according to Texas A&M ag economists Dennis Fisher and Ronald Knutson, those general averages don't paint an accurate picture of the farm-labor supply. Their recent work shows reports of labor shortages are in fact real, if you consider the labor markets at the local, not national, level.

Their figures show that the national farm labor force is made up of approximately 1.1 million workers, which has been relatively stable for at least the past decade. But their data also indicate substantial seasonal variability in that supply. For example, the total number of workers ranged from 802,000 in January 2010 to almost 1.35 million in July 2010. And they believe even those national data do not reveal the more extreme seasonal hiring fluctuations that occur in local markets. In addition, Fisher and Knutson challenge the notion that immigrant farm labor is mobile and thus fluid to move to areas of shortage. They cite studies demonstrating three out of four immigrant field-crop workers work at a single location within 75 miles of their permanent home, and they predict the percentage of settled workers on livestock farms is even higher. America may have surplus of farm labor as whole, but locality, the shortages are often acute. At the local level, the farm labor shortage is real.

Bureacracy. One reason estimates say the number of immigrant farm workers working illegally in this country is from 50 percent to as high as 70 percent is that all other factors equal, the cost difference between hiring an illegal and legal immigrant often prices the legal out of the market. The federal government's guest worker program is hampered by bureacracy and delay, they write. Before an agricultural employer can use the program, he must demonstrate the domestic labor supply can't meet his requirements and that hiring immigrant worker won't drive down wages of similar native workers. A University of Florida study reported in February found complying with the pre-hiring requirements of the guest-worker program to hire one citrus picker from Mexico added $1,900 to the cost of that worker. Fisher and Knutson cite the story of a Georgia blueberry grower that illustrates the practical outcome of such regulation. In order to rectify the fact that 90 percent of the 67 workers the grower hired over the course of a year were working illegally, he decided to apply for guestworker approval. After following all prescribed procedures, only 13 workers accepted jobs, six worked for three days or less, only two worked for more than two weeks, and none finished the harvesting season.

Desire and ability. “The notion that immigrants are taking jobs away from American workers is simply not true,” said Missouri dairy farmer Randy Mooney in conjunction with release of a study by the National Milk Producers Federation showing 51 percent of the nation's dairy employees are immigrants. “Dairy farmers have tried desperately to get American workers to do these jobs with little success — and that’s despite an average wage that is well above the U.S. minimum wage.”

One of the widely held sentiments for preferring Mexican immigrants that farmers don't often openly talk about is they believe they're better at the job. A more rural population (although that's changing in Mexico as it is in the United States), along with some cultural traits often leave Mexican immigrants more suited to farm work, particularly livestock-related work, than native Americans.

Research suggests that's not just prejudice. A November 2016 study by the American Immigrant Council supports the notion."Our findings challenge well-established perceptions of individuals working in low wage service jobs—such as janitors, maids, or caregivers—as socially invisible workers performing tasks requiring little or no skill or special training," the study says. "In contrast to these perceptions of the disadvantaged and unskilled migrant farmworkers, we found substantial skill transfers, skill development, and social mobility among the migrant farm workers in our study. Of the male migrants who entered agricultural jobs upon arrival in the United States, for example, 80 percent said that their agricultural experience and knowledge of planting and harvesting crops in Mexico helped them learn new ways of doing things in their agricultural jobs abroad."

 

 

Politics has grown schizophrenic

Despite the reality that Republicans swept the November 2016 elections, winning not only the presidency and both houses of the U.S. Congress, but also gains that put them in control of both legislative chambers in 32 of the 50 states, with veto-proof majorities in 17, along with 33 of 50 state governors, the political climate is far from consensual. A growing rift over several issues that many might have considered already settled long ago will continue in 2017, amounting to what could rightly be called political schizoprhenia. Even in Nebraska, areas of hot disagreement will continue to strain some former alliances, including:

Immigration. President Trump's promised overhaul of U.S. immigration law, including strengthening the southern border with Mexico to prevent illegal immigration and to increase enforcement efforts to detain and deport illegal immigrants, has put him at odds with much of his support base in American agriculture.

As a result of the chronic labor shortage U.S. farms face, it's been estimated that as many as one in four U.S. farmworkers are foreigners without legal documentation. A 2012 USDA study predicted that tightening border enforcement and cleaning up the federal government's temporary visa program for farmworkers could have significant negative impacts on U.S. farms, in particular, fruit and nut growers, vegetable producers and nurseries. A similar study underwritten by the American Farm Bureau in 2014  found changes most similar to what President Trump has proposed would cause unacceptable harm to American farms. Farm Bureau called instead for policies that would permit workers with experience in agriculture but no legal status to stay. Trump's popularity in rural America notwithstanding, success for Trump's southern wall is likely to require a big gate be included.

Trade. Despite that widespread support by farm states for Trump, who ran on promises of renegotiating trade deals to favor American business and bring back manufacturing to this country, the reality is that the farm economy—and surrounding communities, as in Nebraska—is increasingly dependent on world trade. With net farm income projected to be down nearly 40 percent over the last three years, according to a USDA report from late December, farmers will continue to be dependent on export markets to support depressed prices and declining profits at home. According to current estimates, about one-third of all U.S. farm income comes from exports. Yet, Trump spent much of his campaign attacking multilateral trade deals that support U.S. agricultural exports, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership proposal, which American Farm Bureau estimated would have added $4.4 billion annually to the U.S. agricultural economy. Economic analysis conducted by Nebraska Farm Bureau last year showed that virtually every county in Nebraska would have benefited from the agreement, which would likely have increased agricultural cash receipts by more than $378 million a year.

Loss of those trade deals need not be all bad, if the new administration moves agressively toward one-on-one trade agreements that benefit the United States, as Trump also promised. But for now, Steve Nelson, Nebraska Farm Bureau president, said his organization was disappointed with Trump’s decision.

Food companies driving proxy farm regulation. Perhaps no better example of how food politics have been turned inside out exists than this: Even as big-business food companies adopt and promote high-profile positions that require their farmer-suppliers to agree to self-regulate practices ranging from environmental sustainability to animal-welfare, Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, has openly attacked many of the previous administration's environmental and animal-welfare regulations. Pruitt sued the EPA in 2015 over the proposed Waters of the United States rule, which would have placed regulation of ditches and small creeks under EPA control as "navigable waters." He also helped write Oklahoma's ballot question 777 last year which would have required courts to recognize the rights of farmers in that state to farm as they see fit.

Taxes and the budget. The Nebraska state government's projected $911 million budget shortfall as this year's legislative session opened spells continued division over how to solve the funding shortfall, often making for an uncomfortable fit among otherwise natural political allies. While farm groups push for a reduction in what they believe to be crippling local property taxes, businesses are urging the state not to hide a continuing overall high tax climate by simply shifting those taxes onto a state level, where accountability could be lower.

A wrap-up of 2016 political food issues

As shoppers across Nebraska sit down to the Thanksgiving meal, traditional and not-so-traditional, take a minute to reflect on the numerous ballot initiatives this fall aimed directly at changing the nature and make-up of that table. Highlights include:

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